Last week on Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, Wyatt Cenac (WC) shared the reason he left The Daily Show a few years ago. The show was more therapy session than interview. WC’s honesty was courageous in a world where social media is so cruel.
A few facts stood out to me… WC shared how grateful he was to Jon Stewart for giving him an opportunity on The Daily Show, and in hindsight WC put Jon Stewart on a pedestal, looking to his boss for a connection that just wasn’t there and that made the disappointment even greater when this unfortunate misunderstanding occurred.
Adding to the complexity we have the racial aspect. WC was the only black writer on the show which compelled him to speak up when he saw racial insensitivity happening. But there was a history of WC not feeling like his voice was valued at The Daily Show so when he spoke up the situation at work became terribly uncomfortable for him to the point that he ended up leaving the show.
When I first moved to NYC in the late 90’s, an actor friend recommended me for this well-paying acting gig on Wall Street. When I booked the gig I was so grateful to the white woman who owned the business for hiring me, I put her on a pedestal. There was a small part of my mind thought,”well this is non-union and it won’t count towards my insurance or pension… she’s not taking out taxes…,” I just let that go and focused on the daily rate and amount of work and thought,” Fuck it, I’m acting! It’s good money and a great opportunity…just do it.” God I was so naive.
In the beginning it was wonderful. I mean, I did not have to take a restaurant job busting my ass all night and auditioning all day, or bust my butt to play some U5 role as an unwed mother, prostitute, housekeeper or crack whore. I got paid hundreds of dollars a day put on a business suit and high heeled shoes and play an Investment Banker for 3 hours. I got to travel all over the country, stay in fancy hotels, get taken out to eat in fancy places and ride in limos.
As time wore on, the magic wore off and reality set it. Being the only American-African person in a room filled with cocky Wall Street guys who hated the fact they were being forced to go to diversity training instead of being on the trading floor, was not fun. The bright side was that our acting team trusted one another, which made a difficult job a doable. As time went on, poor management began to wear us down. I began to notice things like, we did not get reimbursed for buying the suits etc. we had to wear on stage, there was no health insurance or 401 K. Taxes were not taken out and there were no contracts to guarantee work. The worst part of this experience was I began to see many of the things we were training our clients not to do, were being done…to me.
Our group used improv, and the years passed, the improv evolved into a set script. As I started to contribute content, I wouldn’t get credit, where others did. Then the woman who owned the business began to hire writer/actors, who were getting paid to copy down our improvs word for word, and got paid as writers addition to getting paid for acting. She never used any of the female actors as writers.
As the years wore on, I began to see how our female boss, valued the voices of the white males on the team more than the women and that for me, even in this world of “diversity training” in order for my ideas to get out into the room and be heard, I would have to whisper my idea to one of the white male actors I trusted to share my idea with the group and then he would give me credit, but I would never be paid as a writer.
For 5 years I stayed in this toxic workplace where art was reflecting life in the worst way possible. I never said anything to my boss because this job paid the rent. So we actors and writers freely complained about our boss behind her back while smiling to her face and it was so toxic. People were afraid to speak because when new actors who did come into the group, saw the dysfunction and spoke up… they were not invited back. Then September 11th hit and the work slowed down and tensions rose. Fewer actors were used and in this climate everything I had been holding in began to rise to the surface. Really bad things started happening among the actors on and off stage, and it became a horrible place to work. But I never was brave enough to speak to my boss directly. There was no security, and my fear of being fired and losing my income was overpowering.
One day she brought in a black male actor, I believe he was second generation Nigerian-American to play the role I was playing as a “backup.” When he came in… I knew my time was limited, dark-skinned black men are a hot commodity in the acting world, so I began my exit strategy before I was “managed out.” Just as I suspected, I started getting called for fewer gigs, and I started hearing about gigs I wasn’t booked on, where they booked the male actor. My boss’ assistant would say…oh the client wanted a man to play that character. Yet, this option was not given for all the other characters on the gig.
So, I looked for an office job and after 7 years I stopped doing diversity training entirely. The man who replaced me did really well with the company. He was, able to deal with her in a way that I never would be able to, my boss just loved men of color as many liberal white women in positions of power do. He ended up traveling to Europe and Asia with the company. He made great money and was able to get an agent and did theater, booked a film and now I see him frequently in films and he’s even a series regular on a TV show.
I ended up managing an office at a non-profit for a few years then the organization shifted and I was laid off. I quit acting for a while and entered the yoga community and encountered working relationships with several white women who were shockingly like the woman who ran the diversity training consulting firm.
The pattern just kept on repeating. Part of that pattern was my buying into the gratitude factor. In a world filled with so much rejection, to be accepted, to get a job, feels like this huge favor… this life changing opportunity, this path to freedom, this way out a means to a better life.
It’s easy to put a boss (or teacher) on a pedestal. It’s easy to feel disappointed and let down when you see that this boss who has changed your life by hiring you or leading you through a transformational training is human and chooses favorites, can have poor management skills, is imperfect, takes you for granted, has the power to make you feel like you are the last one to be picked at dodge ball in the 7th grade, and can have a moment of racial insensitivity.
My parents taught me parents that I must be three times as talented than my non American-African peers in order to receive fair treatment in the workplace. Many American-Africans of a particular social class are raised and expected to be…flawless. In turn we may unknowingly expect our employers to have a higher level of consciousness and in reality, they don’t.
If we are lucky, are able to skillfully bring up a challenging situation and have a difficult conversation with our bosses (if those bosses are open to mindful dialogue) and be able to gain better understanding and deepen the relationship. But often times situations end up with the employee leaving the organization in search of a better place.
But what if there is no…better place and the pattern continues? I’m sorry, I don’t have the answer. That’s the mental calculus it takes to navigate the gratitude factor and the quest for understanding
P.S. Three years ago I came out of “retirement” from acting. Through my catering company, working in the yoga world etc… I kept paying my SAG-AFTRA & EQUITY dues. I booked a regional commercial, a national commercial, two plays and am currently writing my first play with music and dancing… That Yoga Play.
I am always grateful when folks hire me for my talent but I no longer put people who are employing me on pedestals and I only accept UNION work.